Allan Powell: Machiavelli in Virginia

February 01, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

Niccolo Machiavelli would be proud to sit in the Virginia legislature with so many like-minded shysters. His enemies called him “Old Nick” — the devil himself — because of his straightforward praise for amoral conduct by those who rule. His very famous book, “The Prince,” published in 1537, is full of devious but acceptable ways for rulers to maintain power. Perhaps the best-known maxim of statecraft created in history is found in “The Prince.” In part it declares, “… and in the actions of men, and especially of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means.”

This is an unvarnished appeal for political amorality — the absence of any moral consideration in the conduct of those who rule. A ruler needs only expediency in keeping order and protecting his domain. “The Prince” permitted rule without the angst of conscience and became known as the “Bible of dictators.”

Perhaps the Republican legislators carried a copy of “The Prince” in their packets as an inspiration for the use of expediency in such a naked, unprincipled power grab. They were clever enough to use a one-day opportunity to gerrymander their way into additional Republican districts and control of a 40-seat Senate. At present, that body is evenly split at 20 seats each. A one-seat shift would alter that balance and open the door to a virtual coup. This opportunity came about on Inauguration Day (Jan. 21), when one Democratic senator left Richmond to attend the ceremonies in Washington, D.C.

The absence of Sen. Henry L. Marsh III set the stage for 20 devious politicians to ram through a newly drawn map, attached to a routine bill. This could become law if the governor does not exercise his veto power. The bill was conceived in secrecy and passed without debate in 30 minutes. This is just another case of the Republican Party in action. They can’t win a political contest on the merits of their political philosophy or social programs, so, instead, they use stealth.

A bit more from Machiavelli will show the extent to which these legislators have joined hips with “Old Nick.” In a short essay, “In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith,” he writes, “How laudable it is for a prince to keep good faith and live with integrity and not with astuteness, everyone knows. Still, the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation.”

If you asked each of the 20 conniving legislators what they thought of Machiavelli’s ideas, they likely would gulp in holy-righteous rage and deny any association. Yet, one does not need to be very bright to see that all 20 of these lawmakers were clearly guilty of “astuteness” and defended what they did by using “the ends justified the means” — or “if our party gets the majority, we can do so much good for Virginia.” We, as frail (some say depraved) and easily tempted creatures, need a ready rationalization, and Machiavelli gave us a perfect out, “The end justifies the means.”

While these ambitious and devious legislators were executing their shameful act, their victim (an active agent for civil rights) celebrated the swearing-in activities while unaware that his innocent trip made it possible for these Machiavellian characters to carry out their vile plan according to his script. “A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” Also, “a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing would be against his interest.”

This story is not yet concluded. This bill must be signed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell — a Republican. This case will test his moral spine to the limit. He is well aware that if he does sign, there will be a very poisoned political atmosphere in Virginia, lasting for years. On the other hand, there are those who will hate him for not taking advantage of a rare chance to advance his party. We will soon find out if the governor is St. Thomas or “Old Nick.”

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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